When it comes to buying Washington apples, Japan’s reluctance to open its markets is frustrating, but not unexpected. Hopefully, our state’s congressional delegation efforts will pay off.

With U.S.-Japan trade talks likely to start soon, Washington’s congressional delegation sent a letter asking U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to work on removing Japanese barriers to Washington apples. Those barriers have been long standing and, at times, almost impossible to overcome. Lighthizer has his work cut out from him.

The Japanese government is strongly protective of its domestic business. We found that out many years ago when I worked for the forest products industry. Japanese negotiators were cordial and seemed understanding, but were intractable.

In the 1970s, the timber industry was under enormous pressure to end log exports primarily to Japan. Congress had banned the exports of logs cut on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. Washington’s state Legislature was about to do the same on logs harvested from our state’s vast forests located west of the Cascades.

Crown Zellerbach, my employer and a major forestland owner, paper maker and lumber producer, owned over a half-million acres of forests which primarily grew Hemlock, our state’s official conifer.

The Japanese preferred Hemlock because it is a white wood which the country’s homebuilders preferred. Japan’s homebuyers wanted natural looking unpainted wood and their sawmill owners would buy individual logs to custom cut for each home. Crown purchased Hemlock forests because its white, less resinous wood produced pulp which did not require bleaching in the papermaking process.

Their system of milling was vastly different than ours in America, but even with the handwriting on the wall — log exports were dramatically decreasing — government officials in Japan resisted buying our lumber. Crown even spent millions to modified sawmills to cut logs to Japanese specifications.

While they recognize the trend, they only would change when forced.

Hopefully, with congressional pressure, Washington growers will see some progress this year. As with Japanese lumber purchases a half-century ago, Washington state apple growers have long sought meaningful access to Japanese markets, but restrictive import requirements have prevented them from gaining a foothold.

Since 2003, the United States has won two World Trade Organization disputes against these restrictive policies, but significant technical trade barriers on apples remain in place.

Dave Martin, export sales manager at Stemilt Growers, told the Capital Press that for decades the Japanese have done just that, used phytosanitary rules (international certification of plant and fruit safety) to protect its apples. Martin said there’s potential for a 1 million-box market if protocols change.

It would also help if the ongoing U.S.-China trade talks end or significantly reduce the retaliatory tariffs the Chinese slapped on U.S. agriculture products in the middle of last year’s cherry harvest.

Chinese prefer many of the apple varieties grown in Washington and their shoppers buy Fuji apples seven out of 10 times. That trend is good from Washington orchardists who are switching to organic varieties of Fuji, Honeycrisp and Gala.

Fuji apples are grown in traditional apple-growing states such as Washington, Michigan, New York and California, but our state’s production is by far the largest. Washington state grows roughly 67 percent of all U.S. apples and is responsible for nearly 90 percent of total U.S. apple exports.

Finally, the encouraging news is congressional spotlight is on our state’s agriculture. Hopefully, trade negotiators can prod the Japanese government to open its markets to our apples and quit hiding behind overly restrictive and questionable “phytosanitary” policies which have been disproven time again.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.